Charity struggles to meet east county’s hidden need

Camas-Washougal Community Chest supports other agencies, personal connections in east Clark County

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

2015 Camas-Washougal Community Chest Grantees

Total: $69,375

• Interfaith Treasure House: $12,000. Emergency food, school backpack program, emergency rent and utility assistance, school supplies, weekly dinner programs, outreach activities.

• East County Family Resource Center/Children's Home Society: $11,500. Child development training for staff.

• Friends of Camas Community Center: $3,475. Camtown Youth Festival supplies, 60 swimming lesson sponsorships.

• Camas Children's Fund: $2,000. Basic needs for students.

• Washougal Children's Fund: $2,000. Basic needs for students.

• Janus Youth Programs: $5,000. Beds for Camas and Washougal runaway and homeless youths at facility in Vancouver.

• Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership: $9,000. Outdoor applied learning for youth, including habitat enhancement projects in the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

• Meals on Wheels People: $2,500. Food and food service supplies.

• Friends and Foundation of the Camas Library: $5,000. Support for summer reading program for children and teens.

• Friends of the Columbia Gorge: $5,000. Outdoor education program for sixth graders in Washougal School District.

• REACH Community Development (formerly known as ACE): $2,500. Classes, workshops and meetings with low-income renters.

• Camas Farmers Market: $3,600. Tokens for children to buy fresh produce after learning about food.

• Silver Star Search and Rescue: $5,000. Provides one-third of the funds to replace a 31-year-old emergency response vehicle.

• TOPSoccer: $800 for T-shirts and trophies for children with disabilities.

2015 Camas-Washougal Community Chest Grantees

Total: $69,375

Interfaith Treasure House: $12,000. Emergency food, school backpack program, emergency rent and utility assistance, school supplies, weekly dinner programs, outreach activities.

East County Family Resource Center/Children’s Home Society: $11,500. Child development training for staff.

Friends of Camas Community Center: $3,475. Camtown Youth Festival supplies, 60 swimming lesson sponsorships.

Camas Children’s Fund: $2,000. Basic needs for students.

Washougal Children’s Fund: $2,000. Basic needs for students.

Janus Youth Programs: $5,000. Beds for Camas and Washougal runaway and homeless youths at facility in Vancouver.

Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership: $9,000. Outdoor applied learning for youth, including habitat enhancement projects in the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Meals on Wheels People: $2,500. Food and food service supplies.

Friends and Foundation of the Camas Library: $5,000. Support for summer reading program for children and teens.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge: $5,000. Outdoor education program for sixth graders in Washougal School District.

REACH Community Development (formerly known as ACE): $2,500. Classes, workshops and meetings with low-income renters.

Camas Farmers Market: $3,600. Tokens for children to buy fresh produce after learning about food.

Silver Star Search and Rescue: $5,000. Provides one-third of the funds to replace a 31-year-old emergency response vehicle.

TOPSoccer: $800 for T-shirts and trophies for children with disabilities.

WASHOUGAL — There must be more to life than designing printers, Dave Pinkernell decided. He took an early retirement buyout from Hewlett-Packard after 32 years and started considering what’s truly most important to him: the well-being of local children and the whole east county community.

Pinkernell quickly fell victim to the same hazard that snags many eager and good-hearted volunteers: The board he’d gotten onto started looking for a new president, and Pinkernell’s hand was the only one that went up.

That board guides the Camas-Washougal Community Chest, an umbrella charity that does a lot with too little, said its now-President Pinkernell. The homegrown nonprofit agency’s mission is to fund grant requests from other nonprofits in Camas and Washougal, and Pinkernell is determined to raise its profile and its income, so it can increase the amount it distributes in grants every year.

The Community Chest this month announced 15 grants to 14 local organizations totalling just over $69,000. Those grants are estimated to ultimately touch as many as 15,000 people. But $69,000 is a big decline over previous years. In 2014, the Community Chest distributed nearly $83,000 in grants. Pinkernell said he’s not exactly sure why individual and corporate charitable donations in east county have slumped even while the economy is improving. East county’s need for charity certainly keeps growing regardless, he said.

The combined population of Camas and Washougal is approximately 36,000, according to the state of Washington, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, just under 12 percent of Washougal’s population and exactly 6 percent of Camas’ population live below the poverty line. Those figures don’t include the nearby populations outside those cities’ boundaries. According to the Office of Public Instruction, 21 percent of students in the Camas school district and 40 percent in the Washougal school district qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

“The economy may be growing, but there is a lot of hidden need in Camas and Washougal,” Pinkernell said. “We’re a little alarmed that we fell short this year.”

‘This place is awesome’

Camas has enjoyed a huge technology manufacturing boom in recent decades, and Washougal has limped along after it — but if you’re not a high-tech professional, “there’s just so little out here” in terms of employment and affordable housing, said longtime resident Jessica Tuttle.

“I have looked really hard, and there’s nothing,” said Tuttle. She lives with her grandparents and four children — and without a car — up on what she calls “Motocross Mountain,” north of town.

On a recent Monday, though, Tuttle and a church friend came down to the Children’s Home Society’s East County Family Resource Center on C Street in Washougal to help organize a basement full of donated food, clothing, housewares and baby supplies that came from a local school’s Stuff the Bus effort. Tuttle said she has appreciated the center’s food and maternity support in the past, and she’s happy to help out now. “This place is awesome,” she said.

Such awesomeness is why the Resource Center and the Interfaith Treasure House are the Community Chest’s major beneficiaries by far. “Biggest bang for our buck” is the phrase that keeps coming up as Pinkernell describes these multifaceted social safety-net agencies, which leverage massive amounts of volunteer labor as well as the personal connections that remain crucial in a corner of the county that’s growing but still markedly close-knit.

“This is how we operate,” Family Resource Center coordinator Renee Law said admiringly while her basement volunteers attacked the pile.

In fact, the Community Chest broke with one generally accepted principle of charitable giving to bump up Law’s hours at the office in 2014 — so that she could put to full-time use the expertise she’s developed across seven years of working there part-time. Grantors don’t usually want to pay for ongoing operating expenses and salaries, but Law proved too valuable not to have there full time, Pinkernell said.

“Renee is our community expert,” said Pinkernell. “She is the expert on plugging into different agencies.” Since then, the Children’s Home Society has taken on the financial responsibility for Law’s position, and the 2015 Community Chest grant will pay instead to continue her training and skills development.

Forty hours a week of Law means vastly more opportunities for clients to make connections. Numerous social service agencies based in Vancouver — Columbia River Mental Health, Community Services NW, WIC, Sea Mar Community Health Centers — have set up regular offices or regular hours at the East County Family Resource Center recently, she said.

“All these services are combined in our one building,” Law said. “We promote our services and theirs, too. They refer to us, we refer to them. We’re trying to find all the local services and bring them together here.”

A computer and phone in the lobby of the building have turned out to be a godsend for many, she added. Visitors regularly use them to hunt for benefits, medical care and jobs; there’s one college student who does her homework there while her children play. Having one consistent and friendly face there helps, Pinkernell said.

“Sometimes it’s hard at first, but people get comfortable,” Law said. “Sometimes, they just come in and say, ‘I need help. I don’t know what to do.’ No matter what it is, we’ll help them. We’ll find the resources people need.”

Seven years ago, when Law started here as a part-timer, she said, the place used to give away 40 emergency food bags per month. Now, she said, it distributes that much food in two days. Overall, according to a report covering six months of 2014, the East County Family Resource Center distributed 537 weekend food backpacks to local children, as well as 1,632 emergency food bags, logged 187 volunteer hours and actively served 384 families each month.

“I have not seen the need go down,” Law said. “I just see it go up and up.”

Help for runaways

Pinkernell said he has been astonished to learn about the level of need in east county. He mentioned that a Vancouver youth shelter operated by Janus Youth Programs and supported by the Community Chest boasts a full nightly complement on its 100 bed nights per year of east county runaways escaping family violence, homelessness and other painful problems. Janus has the expertise to figure out how to help those kids — What’s their next step? Can they return home? Is there any home to return to? Or is it too dangerous? — while sheltering them for a few days, Pinkernell said.

“It’s like the emergency room for them. There’s a reason why they ran away — they are in crisis situations,” he said. A short stretch of help and stability can make a world of difference, Pinkernell said, for a kid who might otherwise tip into a life on the streets and never return.

Other Community Chest beneficiaries go beyond lifesaving essentials and into enrichment. A grant to the Friends of the Camas Library will support summer reading for kids and teens; a grant to TOPSoccer, which brings soccer to kids with disabilities, will provide the same souvenirs — trophies and T-shirts — that other soccer-playing kids get.

Pinkernell has a particular soft spot in his heart for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, which has hosted thousands of student visits and service trips to the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, and for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, which brings an outdoor education program to sixth graders at Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek middle schools.

“The kids get to experience what they never might have otherwise — touching, handling, working with the natural world,” Pinkernell said. “We have always had natural resources as one of our goals. The kids learn they are not just stewards of the refuge but of our whole town.

“The conditions are always miserable, they’re always covered in rain and mud. And they love it. You can see it in their eyes.”

Then and now

According to a history by board member LaDene Mattson, the roots of the Camas-Washougal Community Chest are in the service clubs and community projects that helped on the home front during World War II. When troops started coming home, both the infrastructure and the spirit were still in place, ready to help make east county a better place to live, Mattson wrote.

Youth activities and recreation were uppermost on the minds of early organizers J.D. Currie and Doc Harris, now the namesakes, respectively, of the camp at the north end of Lacamas Lake and the Doc Harris Stadium that the Camas High School Papermakers call home. Currie and Harris worked closely with Camas educator and coach Fred Howe; Howe’s son, Bob, a retired educator and current member of the Community Chest board, said he recalls his dad’s dining room meetings with Currie and Harris as they “sat around discussing what the needs were and what the paper mill might provide. My parents were very much interested in social services and equity issues in town.”

At that time, Howe added, the wealthy and the poor “weren’t as separated as we are now.” And these two towns were sufficiently small so everybody really did know everybody, he said — and everybody knew that the local paper mill, then owned by Crown Zellerbach, was the whole area’s anchor.

“There were many close relationships and Crown Zellerbach was involved in everything,” Howe said.

The paper mill, now Georgia-Pacific, remains the Community Chest’s biggest supporter, Howe said, but “it’s smaller now. It doesn’t have quite the same role it used to have.” The employees themselves do a yeoman’s job of donating, he added, but the Community Chest must work nonetheless to broaden its outreach.

“We need to expand, and I’m finding it a little hard to get your foot in the door” of local corporations that might be willing to host in-house “Friends of the Community Chest” teams, Pinkernell said. Right now, about a dozen east county companies host these special corporate go-betweens — but there need to be many more, he said.

“People are responsive and generous when they learn about us. ‘I just didn’t know’ is what we hear all the time. We don’t spend any money on direct advertising, though we’re trying to use social media more,” Pinkernell said.

There’s been intense discussion on the board about growing into something resembling the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington, based in Vancouver, which doles out millions every year to local charities and programs via managed investments.

The Community Chest has taken its first baby step in that direction, Pinkernell noted, with a bequest of $65,000 from The Glen and Katherine Sinclair Estate of Camas. “I am investing it conservatively. It’s a tiny little endowment but it is the very beginning of a foundation like the Community Foundation.”

That’s a hallmark of this board, he added. “It is not a board of deep-pocketed individuals. It’s a board of volunteers who have passion and connections and skills. I enjoy investing.”

A world away

Back in Bob Howe’s dad’s day, there were swimming pools and community clubs in Vancouver and Portland but nothing in east county. If you had the means, you could go enjoy the fun. If you didn’t, you couldn’t. Access to recreation was, and is, just as much a “fundamental equity issue” as access to food and shelter and income, he said.

For too many, east county remains unequal just because of where and what it is.

“Doesn’t seem like a long way, but it takes two buses with a 40-minute wait in between to get out to DSHS” in Vancouver, said Brian Simms, who grew up in Washougal and truly loves the place. But his hunt for both work and affordable housing in east county has been depressing, he said.

“All that housing they built up on the hill, that’s high-end stuff,” he said. “The rent is astronomical.” So Simms is doubled up with others, he said. ” ‘Couch surfing’ isn’t as much fun as it sounds,” he said.

He was at the East County Family Resource Center on a recent Monday morning to pick up a bus pass and an emergency food bag. He grumbled that he could ride his bike to his destination in Vancouver quicker than the bus would get him there.

“Transportation is a big issue for a lot of our clients,” said Law. “It is hard for folks to reach services in Vancouver. People love being able to come here.”